No end in sight to Sunderland’s downward spiral
The Black Cats have been punished for catastrophic failure on and off the pitch.
Ellis Short bought into a dream when he was persuaded to take an interest in Sunderland Football Club.
Nine years on, he finds himself trapped in a living nightmare.
Short, the Texan tycoon who made his fortune by turning around failing businesses, took up the reins on Wearside with the firm intention of doing much the same with a club which had for too long failed to live up to its promise.
Enthused by former chairman Niall Quinn’s vision, he threw himself into a mission to establish Sunderland in the Premier League and build for sustained success.
Some £250million or more of his money later, they instead sit on the brink of disaster with relegation to League One confirmed and Short’s best-laid plans having been torn to shreds by catastrophic failure on and off the pitch.
Sunderland is a proud club with a rich tradition. Their 1973 FA Cup final victory over Leeds as a Second Division side is the stuff of legend on Wearside and beyond, although the roll of honour extends much further into history.
The championship trophy travelled to Wearside on no fewer than six occasions during the Football League’s formative decades, and the FA Cup followed for the first time in 1937.
A city built on the hard graft of shipbuilding and glass production and surrounded by coal mining communities was able to revel in the title of the Bank of England club.
However, tradition and past glories count for little in modern football and life since has become significantly more testing.
For too long, the Black Cats had bounced between the two top divisions, briefly dropping into the third tier in 1987, and it appeared they were starting to get it right when Peter Reid guided them to back-to-back seventh-place Premier League finishes as the 20th century made way for the 21st.
However, when Reid and then chairman Bob Murray attempted to take the next step, they hit a brick wall, one which was only surmounted when Quinn’s Drumaville consortium handed then-manager Roy Keane the financial clout to anchor the club among the big boys.
Short took up that baton when he assumed control in 2008 but despite his proven ability to revive dying concerns, has seen his investment swallowed by an ever-deepening pit.
As recently as November last year, the American businessman insisted the club should be a fixture in the upper reaches of the Premier League rather than scrapping just to survive in the tier below.
Speaking as he targeted an immediate return to the top flight, he said: “After that’s happened, then I’ll go back to what my original goal had been when we were in the Premier League, and that is that we should be trying to finish seventh place every season.”
That Short has at times been badly advised is undeniable. Since he and Quinn parted company, there has been too little football intelligence at the top of the club and current chief executive Martin Bain is the latest man drafted in in an attempt to address that failing.
That his money has been spent badly is equally beyond doubt, with a rapid turnover of managers and under-performing players fuelling a seemingly perpetual rebuilding job which has wilted and died as the tap has been closed off.
Short, whose involvement is now strictly at arm’s length, is desperate to sell – or if some reports are to be believed, give the club away – but has so far been unable to find a buyer who is able to service the sizeable debt they would inherit.
At the same time, a brand which has been tarnished off the pitch by its handling of the Adam Johnson case and more recently, by Darron Gibson’s guilty plea to a second drink-driving charge in three years, has grown increasingly toxic.
It is a perfect storm and one which shows few signs of blowing itself out in the short term.